Those of you who follow my posts know I’m interested in the issue of campus speech and political correctness, and specifically the question of whether progressive orthodoxies, administered via implementation of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like, are salutary measures helpful in promoting humanistic education, or amount to speech codes that hamper political expression and free inquiry. (You can check back in with my coverage of these issues here, here, here and here.) 

For anyone interested in this topic, here’s a quick back-to-school update, with some fruitful links, covering recent developments.

First is the letter sent to incoming first-year students by University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison. Ellison’s unusual welcoming letter weighed in on these issues, asserting pointedly that “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ’trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The New York Times, in its coverage of the letter and its reception, calls it “a not-so-veiled rebuke to the protests calling for limits on what kinds of speech should be condoned on campus, and who should be allowed to speak, that have rocked Yale, Oberlin, Wesleyan and  many other colleges and universities in recent years.” The article notes that “some alumni, dismayed by the trend, have withheld donations from their alma maters.”

Here is an op-ed by liberal author, columnist and Yale political science lecturer Jim Sleeper, criticizing the Chicago letter and debunking what he dismissively calls “the conservative ‘free speech’ campaign” behind it.

Here is a segment of the ever-helpful NPR show, On Point, with guest host John Harwood moderating a discussion on “Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings and the University of Chicago.”  His guests are two eloquent and sincere undergraduates who criticize the dean’s letter, an English professor who supports it, and journalist Jonathan Chait, staff writer for New York Magazine, who has spent a lot of time pursuing this issue, and is opinionated but fair (and gratifyingly articulate). Perhaps the best part of the segment comes when a caller asks whether too much attention is being paid to rarefied issues on elite college campuses, while students on your local community college campus are simply worrying about how to pay for next semester’s classes; Chait, while agreeing, goes on to address the outsize importance of Ivy League and other elite schools vis-a-vis the evolution of political, cultural and educational norms.

Finally, here is a piece from the Times describing the proliferation of freshman orientation programs – and “diversity officers” – deployed to promote student understanding of diversity, sexual consent, and harmful speech. That last category includes the “microaggression,” a key concept in the new regimen of campus climate training. Microaggressions, in the words of a diversity officer quoted in the piece, are “comments, snubs or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.”

The concept of the microaggression involves redirecting our attention away from the more blatant kinds of insult traditionally associated with racism – like hurling racial or ethnic epithets in someone’s face – and focusing instead on far more subtle, often unintentional slights. It is a way to redirect attention away from the exceptional dramatic incident onto the texture of daily life. The microaggression concept has been teased out into sub-varieties, as the diversity officer portrayed in the Times explains, including verbal, nonverbal or environmental. The article continues with her elaboration:

“What’s an environmental microaggression?” Ms. Marlowe asked the auditorium of about 525 new students. She gave an example. “On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male,” she said. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented.”

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches.

Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”


Among her other tips: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe.

I find I’m thumbs-up or thumbs-down on these notions, case by case. Do I agree that it is obnoxious to be asked if you play basketball, just because you’re black? Yep. Do I agree that teaching that everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard represents a small act of aggression? Not so much. And am I likely to agree that saying “You guys” constitutes a microinvalidation, and that I should abandon it? Hmmm.   

I’ll have to think about that one. Meanwhile, that’s all for now, guys... um, folks – no, I mean, ladies and gentlemen... no, no, I mean, uh, people.






Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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